The Brain and Overtraining Syndrome

Rest time from training is unfortunately something that has been pushed to the side for a lot of lifters.  There is all that “hardcore” talk about overtraining being a myth.  Not taking rest time somehow means you’re more dedicated.  I’m not talking about 1 or 2 rest days a week either.  I mean prolonged rest of 7 days or possibly longer.  A lot of people look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them since 16 years old I have trained 3-4 weeks on and 1 week completely off.  It was never because I didn’t want to lift or that I wanted to take a week off, my body told me it needed the rest.  The signs of needing a break are pretty obvious which means they aren’t easy to overlook.  You can ignore the signs but you will definitely pay the price for it.  It’s about more than the risk of injury, it’s about the loss of progress.  Not taking rest time when you need it doesn’t make you hardcore, it makes you a moron.

 

Most people think that if someone is well fed, sleeps well, and takes a couple off days a week, this means recovery can keep up with training demand.  This isn’t the case at all.  You can eat a caloric surplus with perfect macronutrient ratios and sleep 10 hours a night and still destroy yourself in the gym.  Much of the stress that causes overtraining isn’t due to muscular recovery issues between sessions but due to the demands put on the central nervous system and endocrine system.

 

The CNS, Adrenals, and Neurotransmitters

The central nervous system is the most overlooked piece of the puzzle when it comes to lifting.  Why can someone stay at the exact same bodyweight and body composition but add 100’s of pounds to their lifts over time?  Because strength is related more to the efficiency of the central nervous system than it is to muscle mass.  When you train as a competitive lifter you are training your central nervous system to recruit and fire as many muscle fibers as possible, as quickly as possible, for specific movements.  Increased efficiency in muscle fiber recruitment means increased strength.  The CNS sends nerve impulses to motor units to recruit the muscle fibers for contraction.  The higher the load, the higher the demand on the CNS to recruit the muscle fibers needed for the lift.  Pretty simple.

 

Now along with that is the hormonal response needed to support intense lifting.  The adrenal glands take a serious beating.  Studies have shown that adrenaline levels start to increase before you start training, just in anticipation of the session.  During training more adrenaline is released to carry you through the session.  Adrenaline is needed to redirect blood flow, increase metabolism for energy demands, and increase efficiency of motor unit recruitment.  The amount of adrenaline released is also in relation to the intensity of the session.  High intensity means more adrenaline needed to support it.  The flip side of this is the cortisol also released from the adrenals in response to workload.  The more demanding the session, the more cortisol is released in response.  Over time the adrenals start working more inefficiently which throws off adrenaline release as well as the balance of cortisol production/release.

 

Neurotransmitter (serotonin and dopamine) activity also changes during training which is where you get that “natural high” from.  CNS fatigue is something that has been studied and they are starting to figure out that it’s not just one of these components that’s the cause of it.  It’s likely a combination of issues with neurotransmitter imbalance, adrenal fatigue and hormone imbalance.

 

When the CNS and adrenals are burnt out from intense training you will see a downtrend in performance.  Weights start to feel heavier and move slower.  Coordination and ability to maintain bar path decrease.  You may even feel shaky or unstable during heavy lifts.  Along with this is the feeling of being out of breath doing things that normally wouldn’t tax you at all.  Or a faster heart rate during easy work, and a heart rate that stays elevated longer after a set.  This is all usually accompanied by more aches and pains than usual.  All of these are indicators that the CNS and adrenals are working inefficiently.  Trying to push through will dig that hole deeper, increase risk of injury, and you won’t get quality training sessions anyway.   A few days a week away from the gym isn’t going to fix it either.

 

Training Residuals

The idea of training residuals was discovered by the Soviets (of course).  Basically it’s the body’s ability to maintain a level of an aspect of conditioning for a certain period of time without training it, and without a significant loss in performance in that area.  The peak strength residual effect is around 30 days.  The idea is that the body can maintain that level of maximum strength for around 30 days after a switch to another area of training that doesn’t directly train max strength.  So you can train for 3-4 weeks for maximal strength, switch to a phase for strength endurance or even speed training for 2 weeks, and when you return to max strength training your peak will have been more or less maintained.  They also figured out that after 3-4 weeks in a max strength phase the returns quickly diminish and sometimes regress. This is an inadequate and small piece of the explanation of Block Training or Block Periodization but I’ll leave the deeper explanation for a later post.  Research training residuals and Block Periodization if you can’t wait, google has your back.

 

Why this matters is because most lifters are scared to take a full week off because they think it will hurt their progress and they will become deconditioned.  It isn’t the case at all.  And just like anything else I write or talk about this has been kicked around in my own training and with clients for years.  I mentioned I used to train 3-4 weeks on and 1 week completely off at the beginning of this post.  Well I had started doing that about 8 years before I ever researched training residuals.  I didn’t need research to figure out what my body needed and how often.  Like clockwork every 3rd week in a training phase I would feel as strong as possible but at the same time I could feel myself starting to turn the corner.  Big numbers would be hit in training but fatigue outside of the gym started increasing as well as a decrease in motivation.  If I tried to push through another week, which I did many times, it was a disaster.  I would go from being able to deadlift 700×4 to 600 feeling like it was 50lbs over opener weight.  From a peak to an all out shut down and crash.  If I took week 4 off instead and returned where I left off, the weights moved like an empty bar again.

 

Rest Week Vs Deload Week

Almost all lifters have programmed deload weeks for recovery.  Few program total rest weeks.  Like everything else, I have tried it both ways over my 12 years doing this.  For me deloads don’t work because they don’t provide adequate recovery for my CNS once it’s smoked.  After a deload at 50% for a week, I would come back to the training and still feel like I got hit by a truck.  Maybe a smaller truck but still felt pretty terrible.  So that’s when I realized that I always took a full week off before a meet and performed at 100% after, so why not work that into training?  That’s exactly what I started doing and it worked perfectly.  3 weeks on followed by 1 week off, repeat.  During that rest week I would still do light cardio and mobility work to keep everything loose and blood moving.  Deloads work well for some but for me and a bunch of my clients, the week off is perfect.  Nothing is lost and you come back fresh and hungry to chew through some steel.

 

Supplements

Something I’m always amazed by is the amount of flashy sports supplements people take while not even taking a multivitamin and no individual micronutrient supplements.  So hundreds of dollars is spent on preworkout, post workout, protein, BCAA’s, creatine blends, etc. while there is nothing to take care of micronutrient demands.  The micronutrients are what make the whole machine work correctly.  Everyone is so worried about muscular recovery and growth that most don’t stop to address CNS health and recovery.  First and foremost is diet.  If that’s not on track forget about trying to address any issues with supplementation.  The food is like 98% of the puzzle and supplements fill in the last 2%.  If you want to cover your bases without spending a ton of money (and you don’t need to) you can start here:

 

B-Vitamins

I’m not going to list and dive into all of them individually (there are 8 of them) but I will go over the group of them and touch on a few.  The reason I supplement with B vitamins is because of the role they play in all metabolic processes but mainly for their roles in CNS/Nerve/Adrenal health and recovery.  High intensity training, especially lifting, takes a serious toll on the central nervous system and the adrenals.  These are 2 of the major areas involved in strength and conditioning.  The brain is the computer that runs the machine.  When the CNS is burnt out from intense training it won’t matter if muscular recovery is on point, you won’t perform.

B5 (pantothenic acid) essential for: (25-200mg)

breakdown of carbs/fats/proteins

production of important enzymes (coenzyme A)

production of neurotransmitters (acetylcholine)

B6 (pyridoxine) essential for: (low dose may be best 10-20mg)

serotonin and norepinephrine production

myelin formation (the protective coating of nerves)

B3 (niacin) essential for: (low dose may be best 20mg)

precursor for NAD and NADP

DNA Repair

B12 (cobalmin) essential for: (100-200mg)

brain/CNS function

all cell metabolism

 

The B- Vitamins are water soluble which means they need a consistent intake because the body doesn’t store them.  B-complex can be good to cover your bases without needing to buy a ton of individual B supplements.  Be careful with the amount of B6 and B3 because they can have adverse effects on fat metabolism at higher levels.  To be safe you can stick with just B5 and B12 for supplementation.  If you have a well rounded diet the B6 and B3 should take care of themselves.  They can be used at higher doses for performance benefits but that is individual and sport specific.

 

Magnesium

This is a mineral that’s involved in too many processes for me to get through them all here.  The specific reasons I use magnesium are for sleep and mood (decreases anxiety) which both play a huge role in recovery and performance.  It’s also involved heavily in nerve activity which is huge for competitive lifters or any high intensity athlete.  It’s needed for 100s of biochemical processes and guess what?  A huge percentage of the population is deficient.  This would mean that the likelihood of many athletes being deficient is high due to the higher demand for the mineral due to intense training.  200-500mg/day can be used.  If you are taking more than your body needs it will usually cause some gastrointestinal discomfort and diarrhea.  If this happens, just dial back your dosage.  I like to take it at night because of the sleep improvements.

 

Vitamin C

This is another one that can be talked about in a ton of different directions.  The main reasons I use it are for it’s effects as an anti-inflammatory, immune health, and most of all, cortisol control.  It has been shown to help control cortisol levels when 2000-3000mg (2-3g) are taken daily.  You don’t have to worry about taking too much vitamin C.  This is another water soluble vitamin so consistent daily intake is important.

 

Zinc

Another mineral involves in many different processes such as hormone production/balance, metabolism, and the big one, cognitive function and brain health.  It’s essential in the formation of enzymes/neurotransmitters.  There have also been studies that show zinc having a role in adrenal health.  I use 25mg and the PDI is 15-60mg.

 

Phosphatidyl Serine

This is typically more expensive but has been shown to combat cortisol.  It’s important for the health of the CNS and in turn the adrenals.  You can usually get what you need from food but this is another one that can be used to supplement dietary intake.  When I use this I typically use about 100mg/day.

 

Herbs for Adrenal Support

Ashwagandha

Holy Basil

Turmeric

Ginseng

Gingko Biloba

 

This is just a list of things to make sure you aren’t deficient which will increase the likelihood of CNS and adrenal fatigue.  It doesn’t mean taking them will abate all CNS overtraining issues.  Rest weeks/deloads are still crucial.  The point of all this, listen to your body and realize that trying to push through a string of bad training sessions is the worst thing you can do.  If you start to feel like you are overtrained, shut it down and come back stronger.

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